Thursday, December 18, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part four: WATER

Finally, the last part of this Philippines series, and probably my favourite one!

After our amazing days in the jungle (really, I had the time of my life) we left Bohol island for a smaller island just east of it, Panglao, and from there, we took a small boat to an even smaller one, Balicasag. The boat was beautiful, slender and painted white, contrasting beautifully against the aqua-blue water. In the distance, we realised how small Balicasag was (actually, it's barely 1/4 square km!).

We loved the place. To start with, the one and only resort had big cottages, with AC! And had everything you needed for diving and snorkelling, as the whole area is a fantastic spot for both. Balicasag is a coral-sand island, which means no white, soft sand, but it also means there were tons and tons of interesting coral bits (including some beautiful red and pink ones), seashells, and even the occasional blue star-fish! Also, there was this beautiful tree right next to the shore and that, along with the sound of the sea and the placid weather, made for the most relaxing of views.

Of course, I can keep still only for so long, and soon I was getting my hands on some snorkelling gear! I had snorkelled only once in my life, long ago in Cancún, Mexico, and that had been nice. So I thought I'd have a similar experience. I was so wrong. It was far better. Far, far better! No more than 3-4 metres from the shore you were already seeing a number of beautiful fish! Just a bit deeper I was seeing clownfish protecting their anemones, schools of bright blue fish, fish with yellow and pink stripes, velvety black sea urchins with dashes of electric blue, blue starfish... every time I turned my head I went "ooh!" "aaah!" (having a snorkel mouthpiece wasn't what you'd call an aid to creative expression, either, lol).

Next day, I dragged my habib to snorkel with me. I HAD to share the marvels I'd seen! And I can say he was as amazed as I was. Mesmerised. What a different world, so arresting, peaceful, and so removed from the world of us land-dwellers... I couldn't contain my curiosity and, after leaving him back on shore, I ventured to the deeper part of the reef. Wow. I had thought what I had seen was incredible, but at this deeper, further area it was just so much better! The coral had grown HUGE, and into so many shapes! and fish everywhere! Of course, I was convinced my mission in life was to get my habib to see these wonders, too, and there he went, swimming with me far away from the shore, seeing anemones, long tubular sea slugs, more schools of silver or shockingly bright blue fish, comb jelly with iridescent purple or pink-orange spots (actually, we swam into a group of those, they were hard to see until you had them in your face, literally!).

The reef had a sort of cliff at one side, and there the water was such an intense aqua colour, so hypnotic... and even scary, as I kept wondering what could come from the depths without us noticing. Also, the reef was so tall in places I accidentally stepped on some coral. The coral was fine, mind you, but it practically "sashimi-ed" my foot and toes away! The cuts were so clean I didn't notice until we were back on shore! The experience was unlike anything I had seen or done, it was magic. It was profound. It left me longing for more.

I'm afraid my pics aren't that great but, 1. the camera wasn't that good either, and 2. I went crazy and used up all the film in the shallower part of the reef before discovering the wonders of the deeper side.

The end of our trip still had some surprises in store for us. The ride back to Panglao was rainy, but it was interesting to see the ocean change texture with the raindrops. Because of the rain and wind, the boat had to take a detour and drop us at a different part of Panglao, where we were greeted by an old church rising from the jungle next to the sea. Beautiful, and unexpected. We then took a car, drove back to Bohol, to Tagbilaran, flew to Manila and, next day, flew back home to Beijing.

I'm grateful for having discovered this beautiful country, a country which was one of the last places on earth I wanted to visit, a country which offered me one of my best holidays and which left me wanting to come back for more.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part three: JUNGLE

After our first day, we decided to do some exploring. First in our plans (being also the most accessible place) was the town of Loboc, just 10 minutes downstream, to visit the San Pedro Church (built in 1608, but destroyed and rebuilt a few times, as is usual). This was one of the oldest in the island, and there is something definitely compelling about these weather-worn and partly abandoned structures that so long ago gave comfort to people in a completely alien place and terribly far from home.

We wandered around, enjoying the stark contrast of the European windows and angel faces with the surrounding tropical trees, until we decided it was time for our second foray: Bohol's Tarsier Sanctuary, near Corella town.

Bohol is so famous for its tarsiers you might almost make the mistake of deciding not to go see them (disregarding them as too touristy) or, even worse, see them at various (illegal?) places where the poor fellows are kept in simple wire cages. Even though it implied a much longer ride, we opted for a tarsier sanctuary, where these wonderful primates can live as true and rightful inhabitants of the island instead of as objects to attract tourists. We took a "jeepney" (a colourful jeep-cum-minibus) and, after a long and fortunately not so bumpy ride, we got off at the entrance to the sanctuary and, after a short walk, made it to the sanctuary itself. We took a quick look around the museum, and were later led to the protected area by a guide. The jungle was so dense inside! if we hadn't had a guide, even though the enclosure can't have been that big, I would have completely lost my way (and my habib!) after just a few metres; fortunately, the guide was not only useful to find the exit, but also to spot the tiny tarsiers. It was the first time I was so close to a primate in my life, and such peculiar ones at that! I had to keep catching up with my habib and the guide, it was so hard for me to stop looking at them, their huge eyes, (sleepy eyes, by the way, as they're nocturnal), their long strong fingers... I would have stayed HOURS just looking at one. Fortunately, the guide spotted not just one, but about FOUR of them!

Alas, we still had to find a way back home and, given the time (it was late afternoon), there was no transport on that solitary road! Fortunately we managed to hitch-hike with a man and his family to Loboc, and took a boat back home.

The next day proved as exciting as the one before (but this time we hired a car, 'cause we were going farther):

We drove to a viewing spot not far from Carmen town to see the most famous sight in Bohol - the Chocolate Hills, a group of over 1200 cone-shaped hills of about the same size. Here you can see them covered with green grass, but they turn brown in the summer, and that's the reason they're called "chocolate" hills. There are several theories about their formation. And they're completely unnecessary to appreciate the strange formations:

Afterwards, and hungry, we made a quick stop at a local market. And we had a good laugh, as the nice old ladies at a stand there were selling "puto", some sort of steamed sweet rice. As you might know, "puto" in Spanish means "faggot", and to ask the lady what she was selling and have her nonchalantly reply "Puto!" was absolutely hilarious.

On the way back home, we made another stop at Bilar town to see a butterfly sanctuary. Curiously, even though there were some special butterflies there, a number of other things got my attention, like real cacao hanging from trees! The driver got some down by throwing stones at it, and we got to chew the moist, semi-sweet seeds! Crazy! I also got to hold an ENORMOUS caterpillar, smell a plant whose leaves smelled exactly like garlic, and just look at a number of interesting flowers and insects (I have to admit I'm fascinated by nature, and animals in particular).

It was a good day. And to finish it off, while we were having dinner (at that restaurant a hundred and something steps uphill, remember?), I saw strange lights floating around the top of one of the trees... fireflies! There were some 20 of them, and their slow dance above the tree was bordering on the mystical. I was completely enthralled, because the whole setting made the spectacle sort of surreal. Of course, there was no way my camera was going to capture that, so here's just the tree:

The next day we set off for the third part of our trip: a small coral-sand island (tiny, actually) where we were going to simply unwind and relax. And snorkel. Like never before.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part two: DARKNESS

After Manila, we left for an island called Bohol. At first, we felt we were facing a tough choice, there are over 7000+ islands! But the weather (we wanted to avoid ferries, as one had recently capsized because of a storm!) and the few available flights almost made the decision for us. And so Bohol, an island of what is know as the Visayas, and just south of Cebu, was the winner.

I had booked a hut (a "vipa" in the local language) next to a river, in the midst of the jungle in the interior of the island. So, after a short flight we arrived at the capital of Bohol island, Tagbilaran city, and took a car that drove us to a stop on the road. From there, you had to go down some narrow steps (how out of place our heavy luggage was, but I had had to pack for a 1 week official course!) to hop on a slender boat, and then have a 15 minute ride to get to the huts. Loved it. Both riverbanks of the Lobok river were thick with lush green vegetation, the river was calm, the weather was warm, but bearable. And we finally made it: Nuts Huts, a row of some 10 vipas, blending with their surroundings, right in the middle of the jungle and at the foot of the surrounding hills.

I have to admit I got so completely carried away and excited by the idea of living an adventure in the jungle that, to my habib's chagrin, I forgot to check some practical facts about the place, which started hitting us in the face one after the other: the need to drag the heavy luggage along a rough muddy and rock-strewn path up to the vipa, hoisting said luggage up the ladder to said vipa, realising said vipa had no AC, finding out the reception was up the hill (exactly 121 steps), along with the ONLY place that served ANY food, and that the only two ways out were either by boat or up an additional 157 steps to a 750 metre long muddy dirt road that lead to the highway, where you could wait for a bus. Luggage and clothing-wise, we were completely unprepared. Mentally, my habib was completely unprepared, as the picture my excitement had painted was way different from reality. Me, I was so thrilled I felt guilty! And my poor, understanding habib, after some deep breaths, let me have my cake and eat it, and we stayed. And I was happy. I was so happy to stay there.

Our first day we didn't get to do much, as it was rainy. But we simply lounged and watched the jungle around us, from the restaurant (more like a wooden veranda with tables, very simple, and relaxing!) up the hill; we watched how a strange fog thick as smoke would rise from the jungle itself right after the rain, and we saw a couple of gecko's climbing up one of the screens. Back at our vipa (called "Star Treck"!) we watched a couple of movies my habib had downloaded to his laptop; we sat right there, at the porch, together, with no worries in the world but watching a flick surrounded by trees, plants, hills and a river flowing ahead.

We figured we could do a bit of exploring the next couple of days (well, "we figured" means I had more plans than was humanely possible, and my habib helped me set my feet on the ground and take it easy, lol), so we went to sleep. There wasn't much left to do, either, as it was really dark and the clouds didn't let any moonlight through. After getting used to the unfamiliar sounds of animals around (and, one hoped, outside the vipa and not inside it), we had our darkest night ever. Ever. Both of us woke up at some point during the night. And you know how it's like: it's very dark, and you just wait for your eyes to get used to the darkness and start seeing something, right? I waited. And waited. And nothing. It was so dark I could not see my hand in front of me, or my habib next to me, or anything! And I mean nothing, not the slightest blur, not the faintest of the faintest of shapes, nada! It was weird, and exciting, since none of us remembered experiencing such utter darkness. Really, it made such an impression I've just devoted a paragraph to it, see?

The next couple of days were amazing. And, seeing how much I've written already (let's take this as the prologue to Bohol), I'll have to leave chocolate hills, tarsiers, ancient churches and butterfly sanctuaries for my next post!